By Donna Mo
University of Wisconsin historian April Haynes argues that intimate labor and sex have always played an important part in the United States’ economy.
“Intimate labor and the workers who performed it have always been central to the history of capitalism,” Haynes said in a recent talk at UC Santa Barbara.
The event was sponsored by the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy, a research and education initiative started by UC Santa Barbara history professor Nelson Lichtenstein. The center aims to expand discussions and spread awareness of the issues working people face.
Haynes, a UCSB alumna, shared her research on intimate labor from the 1790s to the 1860s during her talk. She used the term ‘intimate labor’ to describe a range of services sold, including households, bodies, and emotions. This range includes health aides, sex workers, nail manicurists, and housekeepers.
“It’s work that historically had been assumed to be the unpaid responsibility of women, including cleaning and other forms of body work,” said Haynes. These jobs typically paid little and were often fulfilled by lower class women because it was thought to be a non-market activity.
Intimate labor, sex work, and other service jobs were the most prominent in port cities, where sailors and travelling male workers would typically stay. These males needed someone to wash their clothes and prepare food for them. And, they often needed sexual gratification.
Intimate laborers would choose to move to port cities, where they would have more opportunities for jobs. When job prospects looked better elsewhere, they moved to other port cities, from New York to Philadelphia to Boston and Baltimore.
“They seized the best opportunities available within the emerging service economy, often while under financial duress,” said Haynes. “Any access to cash was an opportunity for class mobility.”
But the mobility of intimate laborers and sex workers, along with women’s wage earning potential, gave rise to reform movements against sexual trafficking. The middle and elite class grew uncomfortable with intimate laborers and sex workers taking control of their own lives. They started to argue that sex work was immoral and a form of sexual oppression. Reformers felt that these women needed to be rescued from prostitution.
These reformers created a mass transportation system that placed former sex workers in remote and isolated households, called “Magdalen asylums,” to protect them from prostitution, and assigned them to other service work. The first American Magdalen Asylum was created in Philadelphia in 1800, where asylum officers would give women jobs that were considered “productive labor,” such as spinning yarn, weaving textiles, and sewing clothes. These changes led to new forms of labor coercion and commodification.
But Haynes argues that reformers often conflated prostitution with slavery. “They present workers as victims rather than as activists in their own right,” said Haynes.
In fact, however, intimate laborers helped to shape early labor movements. They challenged the hierarchal opposition of “skilled” and “unskilled” labor. “I find sources as early as 1810 showing intimate labors striving collectively to define the value in their own labor,” said Haynes.
Although no historical record of demonstrations, protests, or strikes in their movement exists, intimate laborers took collective action to control the conditions of their employment by creating “female intelligence offices”—employment agencies conducted by and for women. In 1814, Boston laundress Bridget Ann Keef created the first female intelligence office and connected workers with safe, well-paying employers. “We see a perception of employers and service workers and households having a kind of sisterhood or cross-class solidarity based on shared gendered culture,” said Haynes.
Donna Mo is a fourth-year Communication major and Theater minor. She is a Web and Social Media Intern with the Division of Humanities and Fine Arts.